The Key to Oral Health? Start Early
It’s important for parents to help their children learn good oral hygiene practices.

When it comes to says our children in good oral hygiene, Dr. Nilfa Collins, DMD, of Children’s Dentistry of Dublin said, “It's all about consistency and making it fun.” Turning a routine that adults may find mundane into an adventure in healthy living could seem daunting. But luckily, there is a lot of great guidance out there to set caregivers on the right track.

First, it’s important to understand why developing strong oral hygiene patterns early is so critical. In adults, “there’s this huge population that’s really struggling with their teeth,” according to Siobhan Benham, APRN, a family nurse practitioner at Hearthside Family Health in Peterborough. In fact, the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research notes that 27.27 percent of seniors over age 65 have no remaining teeth.

Poor oral health and gum disease can also be indicators of heart disease. That’s why taking a long view is critical to laying the foundation for oral health.

“Starting with all those good habits early in life will help later in life,” Benham said.

But exactly how early in life are we talking?

“The American Academy of Pediatricians and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentists recommend that parents begin bringing their children to the dentist when they begin to get teeth or about one year of age,” Collins said.

Initial visits are really just about getting children used to having someone looking in their mouth. But it’s also a great opportunity for dental professionals to provide caregivers with education and resources about how to promote good oral health. For instance, dentists advise against early habits such as sharing utensils (which can spread mouth bacteria), as well as feeding before bedtime unless teeth are cleaned prior to going down for the night.

To some parents, the advice may sound different from the norms of when they were raised. For example, letting babies have a bottle in the crib used to be quite common; now it has been recognized as a contributor to oral health problems.

“It’s so exciting when your baby gets teeth, and you’re watching them emerge,” Benham said, noting that she advises caregivers to give the same level of attention to those teeth from an oral health standpoint. “We have to start now and be as excited that we’re instilling good habits for the long run.”

There is a common misconception that baby teeth are perhaps not as important because they are eventually replaced anyway. But according to Collins, “Each age during the development of littles is important. We encourage parents to ween kids off bottles and sippy cups, as well as pacifiers, as early as possible to prevent damaging the teeth.”

Not only do the initial teeth help children speak clearly and chew naturally, they also aid in forming a path for permanent teeth to follow when they are ready to erupt.

“If teeth are lost prematurely due to trauma or decay, space maintainers can be placed but they may not be as effective as the teeth they are meant to replace,” Collins said, adding that this is why keeping the originals healthy should be a priority.

A misconception Benham often faces is the concern about using fluoride, due to negative media attention. However, she explained it’s actually an important piece of the oral health puzzle when thinking ahead to long-term preservation of teeth. Once children begin to grow older, lose teeth and get their adult set (around the age of 6), Collins said, “we encourage kids to up their game. Their permanent teeth are coming in and they need to last a lifetime.”

So how can parents help foster healthy routines?

“Make the experience enjoyable, and kids are more likely to follow through,” Collins said. You can try strategies such as brushing as a family, brushing to a favorite song, or using a reward chart for brushing twice a day for two minutes each time.

Flossing should be encouraged early, as well, and can be a fun activity to practice together.

“Kids emulate their parents or older siblings, so their involvement is huge,” Collins emphasizes. Also, keep in mind that it’s important for parents to ensure teeth are being cared for effectively.

Benham said she typically tells families, “You know your child can brush their teeth when they can tie their shoes.” That’s not until about the age of 5 or 6. So, until then, parents should really be double checking their children’s brushwork.

In addition, encouraging healthy eating plays a big role. Allowing kids to actively participate in meal and snack selections is a great idea, while steering them away from sticky sweets and sugary drinks.

“Kids love to feel they have some control, and this helps,” Collins said. Though she discourages excessive sweets, she doesn’t expect kids to abstain from all childhood treats. She suggests limited them to special occasions and rewarding children for making good dietary choices.

For more resources and tips like these, visit dublinkidsdentistry.com, the American Dental Association at ada.org, or the American Academy of Pediatric Dentists at aapd.org.

“We urge parents to get their info from recognized dental authorities,” Collins said.

Like all things that are good for you, good oral hygiene is always a work in progress. But, Collins said, “The reward for following through is a lifetime of good dental health.”